In the 1970 East Pakistan provincial election, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won 288 out of the 300 seats in the assembly which strengthened Bengali nationalism in Pakistan and paved the way for an independent Bangladesh a year later. In a striking coincidence, Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh's founder, scored a thumping victory in the December 30 national elections with her Awami League-led Grand Alliance getting the same number of seats. This achievement can be likened to the past landmark event as her government is expected to firmly establish Bangladesh as a moderate Muslim-majority state with the most promising economic and human development indicators in South Asia, one that perhaps even other Islamic countries could follow.
International observers have found the election largely free, but there are fears that Hasina, galvanized by the massive triumph, would brook no opposition and crack down further on dissent. However, in victory, she showed magnanimity as she said Bangladesh is a “nascent democracy” and she will be the "prime minister of all" and her government's first priority would be to continue the economic reforms that benefit all. “Economic development is very important, and people are getting the fruits of development. Our priority is that economic activity should continue,” she said in an interaction with media persons and poll observers soon after the results were out.
The election results reflected the economic gains Bangladesh has secured under her reign. The country has diversified from an agrarian to a more manufacturing-based economy with rapid growth in the ready-made garment industry, according to a June 2018 IMF report, The sector has seen economic expansion of more than 6 per cent every year since 2009. The GDP growth last year was 7.86 per cent and now she plans to take that into double digits. Poverty has been brought down to around 20 per cent and nearly 90 per cent of the country's 165 million people now have access to electricity. Its foreign exchange reserves stand at more than $32 billion now, from $7.5 billion just ten years ago. Bangladesh is on course to graduate from a least-developed country to a middle-income nation by 2024. Hasina now says she aims to take the country to that stage as early as by 2021, the 50th anniversary of the country’s formation as an independent state. To that end, the government has even launched a programme called "Vision 2021," setting, among other things, the "Digital Bangladesh" action plan as one of the priorities.
Bangladesh has fared far better in some aspects of human development than its larger neighbours, including healthcare, sanitation, child literacy and life expectancy. A key factor in economic success is demographic development. The birth rate in Bangladesh stood at 2.1 -- a rate lower than India’s 2.3 and Pakistan’s as high as 3.5 children per woman in 2016.
"Exiting LDC status gives us some kind of strength and confidence, which is very important, not only for political leaders but also for the people," Hasina said in a recent interview to the Nikkei Asian Review. "When you’re in a low category, naturally when you discuss terms of projects and programmes, you must depend on others' mercy. But once you’ve graduated, you don't have to depend on anyone because you’ve your own rights,"
Hasina has said the priority of the new government will be to complete the programmes that have already been undertaken. She has taken steps to establish Bangladesh’s own sovereign wealth fund worth $10 billion to bankroll long-term physical infrastructure development.
Bangladesh's young people -- a critical constituency in a country where people under 40 account for nearly 80 per cent of the population – seemed to have backed her view as the election outcome show.
The Hasina government has a secular vision. It has amended some of the constitutional provisions to restore the democratic credentials of the country. Since she got elected for the second time and, continuously since then, Hasina has dealt firmly with extremist and religious fundamentalist forces, cracking down on Islamist and terror cells. “I can’t accept authoritarian and military regimes. I am running the country very liberally. But I will not allow terrorism, drugs and corruption, and I will do my best to save our people from these ills,” she said this week.
All these priorities have a bearing on the security and development of India.
In its election manifesto, the ruling Awami League has said cooperation with India will continue in all sectors, including security. In Hasina, India has found a stable, trustworthy ally in economic cooperation and in the fight against terrorism. Dhaka has been collaborating in India’s plans to develop the landlocked Northeast and connect with Southeast Asia as well as to push BIMSTEC as a viable alternative to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). It has emerged as the crucial pillar of India’s 'Act East' policy.
Hasina has assured that no anti-India activity would be allowed on Bangladeshi soil. The two countries’ 4,000 km border has seen ethnic conflicts, infiltration and smuggling of fake currency to subvert India’s sovereignty. Under her rule, anti-India insurgency has fallen in the Northeast.
And it is her economic policies related to energy and technology that now offer bigger scope for relations with India to grow. Bangladesh will soon invite bids for a 2,400 MW second nuclear power plant as she has pledged 100 per cent electricity access by the middle of next year. India and Russia are building the country's first nuclear plant in Rooppur. The country is also planning to step up imports of liquefied natural gas to meet growing demand for energy. After a cross-country power grid, Bangladesh and India have joined through a cross-country oil pipeline to carry diesel from Siliguri in West Bengal to Parbatipur in Dinajpur district of North Bangladesh. India has also plans to double power supply to Bangladesh this year. Bangladesh also has an ambitious infrastructure programme and plans to digitize its financial and educational sectors.
And with further integration of infrastructure, upgrading of border trading stations, the Motor Vehicles Agreement, bilateral ties are set to grow stronger in the future. There are reports that India, Bangladesh and Japan are engaged in talks to build a deep-sea port near Payra in South Bangladesh.
Moreover, despite the recent cordiality in relations with Beijing, New Delhi is conscious of China’s growing economic and military profile in South Asia. China has stepped up involvement in Bangladesh under President Xi Jingping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. It is also one of the top exporters of military hardware to Bangladesh. China last year acquired a 25 per cent stake in the Dhaka Stock Exchange, outbidding Indian competitors. Viewed in such a context the return of Hasina has been welcome development for India as it is Bangladesh where India's 'Neighbourhood First' policy has yielded good dividends for both countries. As a close partner for regional development, security and cooperation, Hasina’s Bangladesh has emerged as a role model for others in the region to change the political narrative of South Asia for the better.
(The author is a strategic affairs commentator. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)